I’m still in awe of Aida Cuevas’s performance of her album Totalmente Juan Gabriel last Friday night. 

Cuevas is a powerhouse performer with phenomenal vocals. She has been in the music industry for over 40 years, winning both a Grammy and a Latin Grammy award. Not only is Cuevas an incredible singer, but she also has a strong stage presence, holding herself with tremendous confidence and grace. Totalmente Juan Gabriel is a tribute to her friend and mentor Juan Gabriel, who passed away in 2016. 

From the second her mariachi band, Mariachi Juvenil Tecalitlán, entered the stage, the audience went wild. I could feel the energy explode with their opening song, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Even though I didn’t know any of the words and don’t understand Spanish well, the upbeat tone of the music spoke for itself. 

Next to me, in front of me and behind me, people were dancing in their seats and singing along. Towards the end of the night, the audience sang so loudly that Cuevas — with a huge, shocked smile on her face — decided to listen instead of sing. She looked proud to have an audience so engaged, and for others like myself who didn’t know the lyrics, it was incredible to witness everyone else’s passion. 

Throughout the night, it became clear that Cuevas meant a lot to many of the audience members. I couldn’t catch what Cuevas was saying in between songs in Spanish, but every time she talked the audience members around me were silent, as if savoring her every last word. I began to realize that for many people, Cuevas was the connection to their culture and home countries. Many parents were there with their children, sharing an important part of their identities through Cuevas’s voice. 

The majority of her songs were in traditional mariachi style, with energetic beats and a general sentiment of happiness. There was one slow song where the lights dimmed and Cuevas poured her soul into the singing, but it wasn’t out of place, instead reminding us that even when we celebrate one’s life, we may feel melancholic on the journey of accepting their passing. 

One of my favorite parts was when members of Mariachi Juvenil Tecalitlán band had solos. They built off of each other, and each instrument got its shining moment. The band members were overjoyed with our reactions, which made it all the more exciting to not just listen, but to watch them perform with the same enthusiasm as Cuevas. 

The audience was so thrilled with the show that even after Cuevas said goodbye and left the stage, they chanted loudly for an encore, which caused her to return for one final performance. It was a special moment as Cuevas discussed how much it meant for her to tour in North America and share her music. This show also fell during Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) — a Mexican holiday celebrating friends and family who have passed away — making the tribute to Juan Gabriel all the more powerful. 

Cuevas is sometimes compared to Aretha Franklin, and I now understand why. With her impressive vocal range and ability to project emotion so clearly in her voice, Cuevas is a distinctive artist and important figure in Mexican music. And beyond that, she’s an icon who offers Latinx Americans the chance to reconnect to the music of their roots. 

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